Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Aug 27, 2018

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, Wizards, the NFL and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Bos, I was nine during the Red Sox Impossible Dream year, was at game 7 of the 1975 World Series, squeezed in front of a little portable B&W TV someone had snuck in to work to see Bucky Fn Dent's homer, Bill Buckner..., Grady Little... etc., so I think that I picked an excellent year to finally start following the Nats closely.

I was in college in New England for the Impossible Dream Year in '67 and learned about amazing comebacks and "impossible" winners in baseball for the first time. The dream year was something I couldn't even begin to imagine, growing up a Senators/Nats fan.

However, your assumption that it's good news for the Nats that you started following them intensely this year seems a tad optimistic. You DO realize that it took you 36 years as a Sox fan to win  World Series! Does that mean 2054 A.D. for the Nats?

I've covered a lot of incredible comebacks, starting with covering all 16 Sox-Yanks games in '78, including the entire 14-game comeback and the Dent home run.

But the current Nats team is dead. Okay, every miracle comeback in MLB history was after the team in question was "dead." That's why it's a miracle. Be delighted to cover a miracle.

But the last 2 1/2 weeks just make you say, "Does THIS team DESERVE to have that kind of run?" My answer is: No. 

They blew two games you just cannot lose in a pennant race, on back-to-back walk-offs in Wrigley Field and St. Louis. They lost two-of-three at home to the lousy Marlins who were sellers, AGAIN at the trade deadline. Then they wasted three straight excellent starts by Max, Roark, and Gio. 0, 1 and 1 runs allowed in a total of 20 innings and lost 2-0, 3-0 and 3-0. There is probably no such thing as "clutch", a person who can will him/herself to a new high level of performance just by "wanting it more", or "rising to the occasion." But there is ABSOLUTELY such a thing as CHOKING, tension, stage fright, whatever, making you so tight, nervous, subconsciously distracted, that you perform BELOW your normal ability. I hate public speaking. I get dry mouth, etc. And I choke. I'm not bad, but I am not nearly my "normal" self, my performance drops. The Nats this year have been (offensive) chokers. That's not a team that suddenly runs off 23-8 to get in the playoffs. 

 

I was watching the Yankees and Orioles last night and noticed the rectangle that they put on the screen to show the strike zone. But the strike zone should be different for every player, based on height and body type, shouldn't it? Shouldn't the strike zone for Aaron Judge be twice as big as the strike zone for Jose Altuve? How will an electronic (or robot) umpire handle this?

They could put electronic sensors on the players uniforms. (But then the players would find ways to move them!) They could put some kind of radar on the players, I guess.

But, long-term, I am VERY much in favor of replacing home plate umpires, some of whom are excellent but a few of whom are trash, with electronic devices. It will just be a better game. Players will be forced to say, "Wow! That WAS a strike. I guess I better learn how to hit that pitch." And hitters with batting eyes that are better than the Average Umpire, like perhaps Juan Soto, will be rewarded for their entire career for a basic important baseball skill, quick pitch-recognition/command of the strike zone. At the Great Pitcher level, I'd love to see Scherzer with a "perfect ump." Those 0-2 pitches, and some 1-2 pitches where the umps give the hitter the benefit of the doubt too much, would suddenly be opportunities for Max to nick corners and GET the darn calls that he deserves. It would drive hitters nuts because they know how good Max is and would be even more tempted to swing at borderline pitches when they are behind in the count.

And at the Normal Good Pitcher level, I'd love to see a competitor with excellent command, like Tanner Roark, get a pure read on all his dive-toward-the-edge pitches.

Bring it on! And worry about getting the top and bottom of the zone correct at that time. It can be done.

Why have we not traded Harper? He does not want to stay in DC. He wants to play for a team that will get him more media and that will get him a world series ring. The longer we wait, the less we will get in return. Look at the NOTHING we got for Murphy and Adams - a waste. Trade him now.

You, like many others, suffer from the enornous illusion that Harper has, at any point this year, been worth much of significance to the Nats at the trade deadline, much less now. He hasn't.

Look at the Machado trade. The O's got the No. 57 prospect in the minors and four warm bodies who project as bums. I've studied the careers of the "other guys" in that trade. One is an AAA-type infielder like Adrian Sanchez of the Nats. The other three are (roughly) the 300th, 400th and 500th best prospects in the minors. Hey, good luck with that. 

Many fans have also missed the main reason (imo) that the Nats dumped the salaries of Murphy and Adams for almost nothing except to low their '18 payroll. All the Nats got for Adams, a serious LH bat with 18 homers, was the assumption of his salary by the Cards and $50,000! Not $500,000. Just $50,000 which in baseball is "a bag of used balls for BP."

The Nats want to get under the luxury tax ceiling. Rizzo said last week that he wasn't sure if they were quite under it yet. Why? There are punishments, which increases, for every year that you are over the luxury ceiling. So, teams very much want to "reset."

But there are other benefits. The MAIN one is the level of compensation that you get when you lose a free agent like Harper who rejects your "qualifying offer", which will be an offer of about $18M for one year after this season.

When the Nats were "over" the limit, they'd have gotten a "compensation pick" between the 4th and 5th rounds of the draft for Harper. That's something, but not as much as you could have gotten for him in a trade by July 31st. But if the Nats get UNDER the limit, and I'd bet almost anything that they will get under it since they do business under the assumption that they can't control Harper's decision and must assume that he's gone, they would get a compensation pick after the 2d round. That's much better.

Also, a comp pick after the 2d round would let the Nats save face for not trading Harper by July 31st. They can say, "We planned this out all along. We wanted to give this team one last chance to make a run. They didn't do it, but at least we gave them, and our fans, the chance. And we didn't aleinate Harper by trading him. By getting a better compensation pick for Harper we didn't really lose much, if anything, by not trading him. The O's got very little for Machado. We do well at drafting. Maybe we'll get somebody who's just as good as Diaz (the No. 57 prospect). We played it smart. Everybody who criticized us just didn't understand the nuts and bolts of how you do baseball business. But we do."

Daniel Murphy is a .320 hitter the last three years, an elite hitter, not much behind Harper. The Nats basically got a nobody minor leaguer and a Player To Be Named Later (from the Cubs AFL team) for him.

So, please, everybody, stop talking about how much the Nats could have gotten for a two-month (or one-month) rental of Harper. The "market has spoken" with the Machado trade which was a potential "Dodgers Win the Pennant" deal. Ans: Not much. 

The Nats were RIGHT not to trade Harper, especially now that they have cut payroll. If he's only going to play 7 years in D.C., which is certainly more than 51% probability, then let him play ALL seven years and have a proper farewell or "please come back, Bryce," so long as it's at Nats Park in late September. End it with some class and mutual gratitude all around. If he leaves, it's "just baseball." That doesn't mean that '12-'18 didn't happen and that it wasn't a ton of crazy fun with the Bam-Bam Roller Coaster Ride.         

Let's say that the MASN mess continues to drag into 2020. Would signing Harper preclude signing Rendon?

The MASN argument is over a difference of maybe $20M-a-year. Sure, it's enough to fight about. Even if it turns out to be more, like $25M or $30M-a-year to the Nats. Regardless, it's NOTHING compared to the Lerner's wealth and CERTAINTY that they WILL get paid someday. Nobody was more pissed at the O's/Angelos for their stall tactics than one ex-Nats executive but even he said, "The Nationals WILL get paid in the end and everybody knows it."  

Why is Chris Davis still on the Orioles' roster? The money is (or should be) irrelevant. He is goint to finish with the lowest batting average in the history of baseball, counting just those players who qualify for the batting title. He can't possibly be on the team next year, can he?

Now is EXACTLY the time that you play Davis almost every day, except against tough lefties, in the (perhaps ridiculous) hope that he suddenly "finds it" again. How can he NOT be better than .167, .557 OPS and 164 whiffs in 401 at-bats? That means he's roughly as bad a hitter as Gio Gonzalez, who can't hit at all, except for his one home run every couple of years.

You're stuck with him for YEARS. Your season is lost. What MORE harm can it do? Run him out there.

Fans CONSTANTLY give up on players who have proved they have a lot of talent but are having an unbelievably bad year.

Many Nats fans gave up Ryan Zimmerman (AGAIN) this year when he was hurt or in a slump. They refused to believe what the back of his baseball card said: "When healthy, this guy ALWAYS hits. And drives in runs at a very high rate." Of course, you don't know if he'll play 70 games or 140 games because he did so much damage to his body playing through injuries, and with cortisone shots, back in '12-'14 when the Nats were emerging as a contender. He'd signed a big contract so his position was "tell me what you want me to do." Take a shot? Play with pain? Play when I make a fool of myself when I try to throw from 3rd base? Hey, you want it, I'll give you whatever I've got."

I get a sad kick out of watching this fickleness. The "kick" is because I know that the Nats know better and understand his value, they just know that they also have to have an Adam Lind or Matt Adams on the team in case Zim misses 50-to-100 games.

In the last five years, when Zim has played, he's average an RBI once every 5.64 at-bats. Or 100 RBI per 564 at bats. In Bryce Harper's career, and he is a good hitter with men on base, has averaged an RBI once every 6.35 at-bats, or 100 RBI for every 635 at-bats. 

But just let Zimmerman go into a slump and (some) fans want to give his job to anybody walking down the street. What if Davis "finds it" again, or even finds "half of it." This guy hit >50 homers in a year, was feared for years, isn't old. He's living a nightmare (and looks like it) but what if he wakes up, even in September!? Found money.

FWIW, Zim was hitting .210 a couple of days after he came off the DL. Since then, he's had 23 RBI in 24 games with an OPS of 1.062 and his OPS+ for the YEAR is 115 (.836). No, not great for a 1st baseman. BUT this does mean the Nats don't have to add "First Baseman" to their NEED list this winter. They just need another Lind, Adams. 

So Rizzo was right about Treinen. But, any ideas why he couldn't put it all together here?

I'd be more interested to know how the A's helped him get it together! Wow! I feel (slightly) vindicated for all the times I defended him and said you had to be patient with Big Arms like his. But, by the end, I was in the "trade him" camp and, so, was wrong.

Treinen, now 30, has been as good as any reliever in MLB since the day he got to Oakland. In 90 games, his ERA is 1.40. Yes, 1.40. This year he was an All-Star and has 32 saves, and counting, for The Shock Team of the season. He is the PERFECT blend of a high-strikeout pitcher (11.4-per-9-IP in Oakland) who is very hard  to hit (6.5 hits-per-9-IP), but ALSO is a pure sinker baller who gets tons of double play grounders!

He is exactly what the Nats need. Thank goodness the Nats got four years of Sean Doolittle and two years of Ryan Madson for him. Doolittle is almost as (statistically) dazzling but Treinen has been more durable so far in his career.

I interviewed Treinen many times. It mildly annoyed him that (many) people said he was "too nice a person" to be a closer. I heard that hundreds of times, nice guy, weak competitor, no guts, cracks under pressure.

Well, the A's are 79-52 and 1 1/2 games behind the Mighty, Amazing Best-Team-Ever-Assembled Champs-For-Years-to-Come Astros.

BTW, there IS another slugging Chris Davis in baseball, Khris Davis of the A's who epitomizes the modern launch-angle hitter. the last 3 years, he's averaged 41 homers, 105 RBI's, plus whatever he gets the rest of this season despite a .250 average and 165 strikeouts.

Look at his "heat chart." Several Nats should. He only tries to swing at pitches that are in The Cross in the strike zone. Divide the strike zone into 9 segments, top, middle and bottom of the zone and inside, outside and down-the-middle of the zone. The Fat Pitches are, for most hitters, the ones that are waist high, whether they are inside, outside or middle or the ones that are in the middle of the plate, whether they are high, middle or low. Almost NOBODY can hit pitches FOR POWER that are on ANY of the 4 corners of the zone, up-and-in, up-and-away, low-and-away and low-and-in. 

But hundreds of them try, though it's a futile approach!

http://m.mlb.com/player/501981/khris-davis

As you can see, 33 of Davis' 39 homers are "in The Cross," and only 6 outside it with ZERO homers on balls that are even an inch outside the strike zone. 

Many say it is boring to watch Davis wait for mistakes, then hit them a mile. All he does is hit balls off or over fences and strike out when pitchers "make their pitch." I think I'd enjoy watching him every day. It would be like watching the fuse get close to the dynamite. You know he'll spit on good pitches, sometimes even with two strikes. But pitchers just aren't good enough, except a few, to stay OUT of those five Danger Zone boxes. Out of the entire nine boxes in the strike zone. They can aim for those four corners all they want, but they are going to miss a lot. Or walk a lot.

Which Nats have Zone Charts which reflect an understanding that they should be waiting for strikes in the Cross? Only Anthony Rendon. He's a pure hitter. He can make contact in all nine boxes, hit for power in the Cross, except "away," where he has no home run power. Rendon doesn't do much damage on pitches low and away or low and in, but he still hits them with above average exit velocity relative to the league.

http://m.mlb.com/player/543685/anthony-rendon

If you want a 30-to-45-minute education on the Nats lineup, so that you actually know how to watch their at-bats, just look up those dozen Zone Charts.

Harper has no home run power on any pitch on the inside third of the plate. Only three homers all year that were not middle or away. But he can hit inside pitches HARD. He just hits them on the ground __which is why the shift is killing him this year. The league studied him and got ahead of him. Now he needs to figure out how to get the same hard contact that he now has on 95 mph and above but get it more than 15-to-20 degrees in the air.

Zimmerman hits balls hard in more parts of the plate, by far than any other Nat. His only average contact, up-and-in or low-and-away, yeah like Aaron and Ruth.

Trea Turner is too stubborn to STOP trying to hit letter-high pitches for power. He CAN NOT do it. Yet pitchers constantly get ahead of him, or get a fly out to CF or RF with high fastballs early in the count. He's got to LOWER his launch angle on those and learn to hit singles to CF and RF. There's no way one of the five fastest men in baseball should have enough bat speed to hit 15 homers, but still be hitting UNDER the MLB batting average (.268).

Pitchers INVITE him to hit singles to RF (then steal 2d) or else beat out bunts toward second base by throwing him a zillion pitches low and away. It drives me nutty to see him unable or unwilling to adapt. He's so smart, so talented. But the same look, sliders low away, high fastballs and sinkers down and in, have been getting him out more than it should for two years. (Or from LHers, changeups low away, sliders down and in and high fastballs.) 

Hi Tom, I read a column by Buster Olney this morning where he says it would be “helpful if [the Nationals] work to figure out why so many players have left the organization speaking of an unusual and sometimes counterproductive clubhouse culture.” Can you add some color to this? What’s unusual? It seems to me this comment is aimed at the Lerner’s.

I suspect it's aimed at the Nats handling of their young "superstars" who haven't yet done superstar things from a team post-season perspective. Strasburg is diligent but has required handling since he seldom wants to pitch unless he's 100%. That's improved, somewhat. Harper is unique. More than any player in baseball, he's conscious of "branding" himself. Yesterday, he wore shoes modeled on his father's work boots. That would be fine with me if, twice in the last two weeks, he hadn't swung at 3-1 pitches in the 9th inning of games where all the Nats desperately needed was a baserunner. He can wear bedroom slippers on his feet as long as he knows when he should "take" one for the team. Even Martinez said they might have a chat about the theory of such situations.

As I've written several times, the Nats have a lot of good guys, well-mannered, hard workers, like Harper, but they live in a bit of a Country Club world where the Lerners love them, Rizzo has their backs and their fans seldom boo, anything. 

My view, also stated many times, is that I wish the Nats had more edge and a few abrasive jerks on the team. Not many. Just a little paprika in the recipe. In '12-'13, Davey Johnson volunteered to several reporters that the Nats were full of fine young men that you'd be "glad to have your daughter bring home." Since I'd known Davey a long time, I waited until we were alone, then said, "Bring 'em home to your daughters, huh? Do you really hate 'em all THAT much?" Give Davey credit, he cracked up.

Davey, from 20-to-40, was about the last guy who'd fit the "daughter material" definition. As a manager, some of his best teams should have flown a skull-and-cross-bones over their dugout. They knocked people down, drilled them, intimidated, didn't mind a brawl, might even like one. And the team's notorious flights (which, in the interest of future employment, I thoroughly condemn) should have had Warren Zevon's "Mr. Bad Example" playing on a continuous loop. 

Why do you think adding Jayson Werth was so important? When he went to jail for driving 120 mph, just to see what his Porsche could do if he aired it out, early on a Sunday morning on a largely empty D.C. 495 Beltway, A VERY BAD THING TO DO, a small part of me said, "Finally!!!"

Two years ago, in Pittsburgh, when the Nats had a semi-brawl, Werth, the oldest player on either team, was the first one to get over the railing and to the mound to try to get to the Bucs' water-bucket-puncher Rodriguez, it was like the NHL with our-thug-looking-for-your-thug. Except Werth was on a $126-M deal and didn't care.  The Capitals have thrown more punches in one period than the Nats have in 14 years. I know, different sport, bad behavior, unnecessary, don't risk getting your stars hurt.

It is really ironic that an old-school, hard-guy-with-a-temper like Rizzo has built such a gentlemanly team. He truly LIKES good character. Admirable. But he knows he also has to add players with fire, like Adam Eaton. He told the Lerners they'd love Max Scherzer's swaggering attitude on the mound. I still remember an hour after the Harper-Papelbon "fight" that one of the Nats most-respected players told me, "You gotta understand, that might be the first time in his life that Bryce has ever been IN a fight."

You don't want brawlers and bad guys, but you do want more Eatons. Eaton rubbed some of his White Sox teammates the wrong way, in part because he ALWAYS hustled, even when the team was 30 games under .500 and some of his teammates thought he was showing them up, BY HUSTLING. I asked Rizzo about it. He said, "Well, that's one reason we WANTED him."

In a previous series against the Mets, Eaton slid hard into second on a double play and accidentally broke the leg of a Mets infielder. There was no call by the umps. It probably broke the current rules on slides by a little, but would have been OK for a century. Except that broken legs on hard slides are never going to be quickly forgotten. So, over last weekend the Mets were in get-back mode against Eaton, as Eaton knew they would be. One of Eaton's old White Sox teammates, Todd Frazier, did some chirping at Eaton. Eaton, who is almost always the smallest player on the field, didn't start Friday. But did on Saturday and led the game off with a bunt for a hit. In other words, "Here's my other thumb to stick in your other eye."

Before the series was over, the Mets drilled Eaton in the back with a fastball, which he ignored, and threw directly at his head the next time he showed bunt, to which he paid little attention. Eaton also blew up another Mets middle infielder on a stolen-base slide, coming up limping himself. There are no "play nice" rules on stolen bases, so that was one of Eaton's answers. In his two starts, Eaton went 6-for-8 plus a walk and hit-by-pitch, all the while making it clear that he didn't care what the Mets tried to do to him or what the consequences between the teams might be. On Sunday, Nats rookie Jefry Rodriguez threw a 95 mph fastball BEHIND Frazier. Later, Eaton came up and hit a home run off the facing of the upper deck in the rightfield corner, it hit the "R" in "PLAYER" so hard that you could hear the sound on TV. I found it interesting that just as the Nats were getting shutout three straight times to, essentially, end the competitive part of their season, Eaton was trying to launch a one-man Mighty Mouse attack on Flushing. 

 

Assuming the team doesn't fall off for years, how long do you think it will be until the Nats have a similar following? They don't have to sell out every game (the stadium is twice as big) but what I saw from Caps fans this past spring is what I want for the Nats.

I've always thought that you'd find out the Nats potential drawing power after they go to a World Series. They don't have to win one.

D.C. saw that Get to The Big Dance phenomenon when the George Allen Skins' went to the Super Bowl and lost. The town went nuts and stayed nuts. The Gibbs era didn't take it to another level on a day-to-day basis. The DAY of the Super Bowl wins and the days of the three parades were "different," bigger and more memorable. But the general standard for insanity was set in the Larry Brown, Sonny, Billy and Over The Hill Gang period.  The last 20 years of bad decisions and bad behavior has done that ethos a ton of damage.

The all-or-nothing nature of the 2018 Nationals offense has gone from a statistical quirk to downright weird to almost parody. Two games of dramatic come-back wins, a longer scoreless streak than any team in MLB this year, and then 15 runs in four innings in another explosion. Sure, "that's baseball", run scoring is volatile, etc. But this is getting ridiculous--one of many aspects of the 2018 Nats that handily exceed the "this is getting ridiculous" marker. There are so many ways to look at the National's oddball volatility, but each stands out in their own way. Getting shut out FOURTEEN TIMES with an offense that ranks some #13 in all of MLB (6th out of 15 NL teams) in runs scored. That's more than KC (9), Baltimore(12), Miami (10), SD (9)--the *bottom four* MLB teams in runs per game. Good (?) thing Detroit's been shut out 16 times with the fifth-worst MLB offense, or the Nationals would be last in the league in this painful statistic. With all the (earned) press the Mets have received for ruining DeGrom's W-L record, they've only been shut out nine times total. Look at what Max's record would be if he didn't keep losing games where he gave up 1-2 runs while his team was getting shut out. The Nats horrific volatility and bad sequencing culminates in having having a +73 (seventy three!) runs scored over runs against and *a losing record*. That's...amazing (in a depressing sort of way). I have no idea how much dig-work it would to figure out which team either (1) under-performed its "Pythagorean Record" by the most during a single season or (2) had the highest positive run differential with a losing record. But the 2018 Nationals have to be pushing into pretty rarified air (perhaps even a record of sorts?) in the related fields of maximum under-performance of Pythagorean Record or highest run differential and a losing record in MLB history. Not the kind of records anyone wants to set...but it's where we are. Your 2018 Washington Nationals--doing less with more than anyone in MLB history?

In the last few days, I've become interested in the same problem. Yesterday I tweeted: "When Nats NEED to score, they haven't: 13-21 in 1-run games & shutout 14 times. But they CAN "come to the party" with wins like 15-0 today. They've won 12 "laughers" by 180-43. Yes, this is unusual. (No, I can't explain it.)"

For years I have resisted the tendency to lump the Nats post-season problems with the Capitals historic issues with choking. The data sample on the Nats is, essentially, four five-game series in which their record is 7-12 with a lot of one-run loses.

But I'd say that this season adds to the narrative that the Nats are a team that handles pressure VERY poorly. As I mentioned earlier in this chat, I doubt that you can prove that a player is "clutch," able to will him/herself to better performance than they ever have on many other occasions when that same person had every reason to give 100% effort.

But we all know that "choke" exists because most of us have experienced it in some aspect of our own lives. In my case, one example would be public speaking. I can talk just fine on radio or TV, don't feel any unusual pressure. I'm a better writer than I am a talker, at least I hope, since it's my job. But I am a cotton-mouth, worried-for-days-about-nothing public speaker. It's the only time in my life that I am consistently unable to be calm and productive when I need to be. I'm not even bothered my 1st hole tee shots when people are watching, which OUGHT to bother any double-digit handicapper. So, I know what choking feels like. It doesn't have to be as clear-cut as a dry mouth which makes it feel like you won't be able to finish the next sentence. You can just be "off" for reasons you may not understand. It can be unconscious, subconscious. Who the heck knows. But pro sports teams need to identify players who can perform at their normal level under pressure and those who have a problem with it. The Nats have had a problem with it all year. Martinez was, in part, brought in to help them fix this, or improve. He talked about "facing" the hump and getting used to the hump. Embrace the hump.

Well, getting over the hump just got WORSE than it's ever been for this team. It's (statistically) ridiculous that the same team could be shutout 14 times but also win 13 other games by scores of 13-7, 15-2, 12-4, 10-2, 11-2, 17-7, 14-12 (the only close game), 18-4, 10-3, 25-4, 10-4, 10-4 and 15-0 on Sunday. As soon as the pressure is off the damn (!) breaks. 

Time after time.

The Nats need a team shrink. If they already have one, or five, they should probably be fired. You don't keep the same surgeons in the hospital if the results are constantly below normal medical standards.

I often get e-mails or chat questions about whether Harper is, or is not a good "clutch hitter." At least we can lay that to rest today.

Harper is essentially the same hitter in all situations over the course of his career, an extremely good hitter, regardless of game situation. With one exception. In this era, late-inning relievers in close games are monsters. So, "late and close" stats for hitters tend to be lower than a player's career norms. But Harpeer has been especially vulnerable in 'late-and-close" situations, I assume because of the high-quality LHed relievers he often faces. His slash line "late-and-close" is weak for an elite player : .223/.361/.410. OPS: .772.

However, look at his career OPS with bases empty (.868), RISP (.897) and Men On (.938).

It's just a fact that Harper hits significantly better with men on base. Many hitters show this tendency because defenses and pitching strategies can be warped or hindered by base runners. The reason that "big innings" are so central to baseball is that a rally, once in motion, tends to stay in motion. Base runners must be held close to bases by fielders, forcing those fielders into spots where they can't reach as many batter balls. Even "double play depth" produces higher batting averages, but when you get the DP it more than compensates. Offensive plays can be put on, like the hit and run, where a mere routine ground ball becomes a hit.

It's interesting to compare Harper to Ryan Zimmerman, because Zim is a good hitter and also because he appears to be completely oblivious to the "game situation." In other words, he doesn't "choke" at all. The only time Zim's numbers change is when the game is lopsided, > 4-runs apart. Then his concentration lapses (I assume).

With no one on base in his career, Zim's OPS is .812. With RISP it's .816. With men on it's .830. BUT Zim is very good, and this is rare because it is a big pressure spot in baseball, with two outs and RISP. His OPS goes up to .864 over his whole career.

I'd rather have Harper hitting with my money on the line, because Harper is a better hitter. But if I had to bet which would fare better under pressure relative to his usual norm, I'd say, Zim, by a little.

FWIW, Zim shows the same difficulty hitting "late and close", presumably against tough relief match-ups. But he's a lot closer to his norm than Harper. Zim late-and-close is .258/.341/.446 for a .787 OPS, close to his career OPS. So, next time you see Zim look pathetic chasing a two-strike slider against Wade Davis, don't say, "What a bum." He's proved for 13 seasons that "late and close" he's almost as good against elite relievers as he is against "everybody." 

As to Pathagoras, stat folks will say that the Nats have been unlucky this year and that they "should" be about 73-58 based on their +73 run differential (605-532). I love run diff. In the cases of the Nats, I think it tips you off to their basic (good) level of talent because in 99% of MLB at bats both the pitcher and hitter are REALLY TRYING because it's a stat-driven game. If you want to see your status in the game drop, just "give away at bats" even if the score is 10-1.

But I also believe, that for some teams, in some years, especially teams that are surrounded by the subject of "pressure" and "choking" from previous seasons, I think that the gagging you think you see from the Nats in close games, or when they are being shut out is, to a degree, just what it looks like, collective group-psychology-gone-wrong gagging.

The best thing about the '18 Nats is that they WILL be blown up because Bryce Harper is the only one of their >10 walk-year players who have any chance of returning. And I doubt very much that he'll be back.

BTW, I agree with Barry's column that the Nats, IF THEY WANT  HARPER, should make an offer to him NOW that is a serious offer, not some "strategy" offer. They need to value him, so they can sleep at night for the next X years, they should offer him exactly what they think that value is.

Just so I can be wrong on this subject in about six different ways today, let me add: I assume Bryce will want to "test the market." In that case, the Nats should say, "Okay. Test it. But this offer isn't permanent. Next time we talk, after you've done your 'market testing,' we'll start on the basis of that NEW information." I assume Harper will regret it. He'll wish that Original Nats Offer was still out there. This is just my "take" on the current free agent marketplace. By then, feelings may have curdled somewhat.

I disagree with Barry, significantly, on what that Nats number to Harper, IF THEY ACTUALLY WANT HARPER, ought to be. Barry suggests $280M for 10 years. My 2 cents, forget 10 years. Nobody is going to get 10 years after what every owner saw last winter in a frigid free agent marketplace. Offer seven years. But I'd go higher than Barry's $28M-a-year. I'd say $30M x 7 = $210. Yes, the same as Max Scherzer's contract. Harper is young, 25. But I don't buy the idea that he'll "improve" and hasn't peaked. After seven full years in the majors, I see little reason to think he will get much, if any better from 26-to-32. And anybody can get hurt. (As Harper already has in the past.)

Harper has never proved he's as valuable in terms of WAR as Max has. Bryce has been a 4.0 WAR player for seven years. There's no three-year period in which he's better than 5.1 WAR. Max was worth 5.5 WAR his last three years in Detroit, the base-line for his big contract. And he's been an astronomical 7.1 WAR (and counting) in his four years as a Nat.

Harper has drawing card value. But there's no way I'd pay Harper more than Scherzer or for more years, even though players last longer than pitchers. But I'd give Harper opt outs after '21 (the last year that Max and Starsburg are certain to be on the same staff) and '23 (when he is 30).

Now the bigger question: should the Nats want Harper AT ALL, at any price which is likely to come to pass in the real world, versus their other options for the future using all the "Harper Resources" in other ways, signing free agents, extending Rendon.

About to out of every three times I think about this subject, I say, "Let him go. Move on. He's as good as his numbers. But he's no more than his numbers. He's not a team detriment, but he's not a team leader. And if he isn't a guy with some positive X Factor after 7 years, he probably won't be. You haven't won with him, so what's the big deal about moving on without him when you've already ready built your OF of the Future with Soto, Eaton, Robles, and Taylor. Besides, whether he tries to do it or not, he sucks all the air out of the room because he's a "mega-personality" and works to keep it that way. It's possible you might be better subtracting him."

The other third of the time I say, "Are you crazy? Look how many games they won WITH him the last seven years. So what if he never really lit up the playoffs. If they'd won two of those eye-lash close Game Fives, then won one of the two LCS that followed, which could EASILY have happened,  everybody would be saying "Those Harper-led Nats sure are a tough bunch." If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Nats aren't broken now, they just had a lousy year, partly because they ditched Dusty and got a so-so Martinez. This guy is your Jeff Bagwell or Chipper Jones. You just have to find out if a future Hall of Famer, who is a good person, really WANTS to stay with your team. You just have to get in this game, not to the point of auction insanity. But you have to try hard to sign him." 

I am not wishy-washy no-position on this. Most of the time I think, "Move on. You prepared for this. You have a plan that looks like it's working out well. With $75M coming off the payroll, you have vast 'optionality' in re-imagining your future. Give Bryce a big sincere hug. Tell him to feel free, if the market gets very soft, to call back about a 'pillow contract' short-term deal."

In that case, you make no offer now, and you assume that you won't reach an offer later. All the Nats moves, including the salary dumping so they can get a better comp draft pick back for Harper, say that they have ALREADY moved on and have no problem with it.

As I've said to Bryce recently, I would, as a writer and as someone who's lived in D.C. all his life, prefer to see him play his whole career in Washington. Just like Ovechkin, he's one of those HOF figures that seldom comes around. And he's FUN. I also said that after covering all of the free agent periods, from '76 to now,  I didn't have much wisdom, but I did have one observation after talking to hundreds of free agents. "Don't mess with happy because of the last dollar. But only you know how happy you are here and how much that jives with what you really want."

I also said that I doubt that the smart baseball team-building decision is to invest so many resources in one player, even him, given the options the Nats have right now. He knows that line of reasoning. It doesn't make him happy. He has a LOT of forces pulling him in a lot of directions. I think he REALLY feels conflicted.

More than anything, I'm just fascinated in observing how this one works out, and why it ends up working out in whatever way it does. What a great baseball saga. I don't think there's ever been a free agent who was this good, this valuable, but also less than perfect, who was in a position where BOTH the team and the player didn't honestly know what was best for them or even what they wanted to do. The Nats want Harper, Harper wants the Nats. But the Nats don't NEED Harper, not in the sense that the loss of such players usually hurts their original franchise. And Harper doesn't NEED the Nats. Bryce is going to be wanted by at least a couple of very good and well-run teams in a couple of very nice cities in which to live. Unique situation, I think.

The Nats have done such a good job of preparing for life after Harper that it may push them toward playing out that hand and a future without him, but that doesn't mean it works out well.

The last few weeks, the Washington Post has covered the Urban Meyer and Ohio State situation that originated in 2015. They’ve written opinion pieces and cited EPSN and other sources to make the case why Meyer and OSU lack moral and ethical principles, and how college football supporters and fans are quick to turn a blind eye to abusive situations for the glory of victories and the all mighty dollar. Indeed, Urban Meyer should have acted more aggressively in reporting an instance of domestic abuse by one of his coaches. But he himself did not abuse his players or his wife. Or his kids. The same, however, cannot be said for Adrian Peterson. In 2014, ESPN had written that videos of AD’s abuse of his 4-year-old son were no less shocking than Ray Rice knocking out his future wife. The Post covered the Peterson situation as well, and had written about the “awful pictures of lash marks and clotted blood.” So, how has the Post covered Peterson’s arrival to the Redskins? Well, they talk about his being a future Hall of Famer, who is in fabulous condition, barely appears to have lost a step, can contribute in the right situation, and perhaps should be named the starter. So where is the outrage by Post writers that the Redskins organization and fans all welcome this sports figure with a history of family abuse? Clearly, the Post staff has refrained from rehashing of his ugly past. It’s been 4 years: is all forgotten, or just forgiven? Urban Meyer allowed a spouse abuser to remain on his coaching staff; so the Post writes that he is evil, as is the University. Meanwhile, the Redskins actively seek out a RB who himself has abused a defenseless child; so why isn’t the Post Staff just as indignant? Hard not to see the hypocrisy. I feel like yelling “Shame!”

You're right that the team should be put in the spotlight for this decision. The Peterson case was very high profile national news story for a long time and, as you say, the Post had writers who expressed opinions about it then. Obviously, Peterson is free to seek employment in his field with anybody who wants to hire him.

But SHOULD you want to hire him? How much should you weigh "We need a running back after all the injuries we've had," which is small in the grand scheme, with "what standards of behavior do we require, as the minimum, that we will apply in deciding whom we hire to represent our team, our city, and our fans."  

When it comes to the NFL in general and the Skins in particular we may be seeing a case of outrage exhaustion. Our standards are so low for both.

But there is a difference. The Urban Meyer issues were a fresh subject that required a university investigation THIS MONTH. That requires comment. The Peterson case, as I understand it, is long since closed. It's not fresh.

The Skins decision is fresh news. In my view, it is typical of them, shallow, driven by a desperation to win now and carried out with little or no sense that a moral compass is part of running an NFL team. If that qualifies as outrage, count me in. But, these days, the "outrage hurdle" is a whole lot higher, inside and outside sports, than its ever been in my life. 

As to football, Peterson looked pretty good, a veteran who reads blocks well, finishes strong, but doesn't, as of now, have the burst or shiftiness of his best years; and, when there's no hole, doesn't (yet) create something out of nothing. If you give him the ball enough, and he stays healthy, he might gain 1,000. But at 3.8-yds a crack, how much does that help? And, at 33, how long does he stay healthy, and keep finishing strong, as he gets pounded?

That's more than enough for one day! See you next week.

 

Thanks for the awesome chats always. We Nats fans sure missed you over the last two weeks to talk us off the ledge, but hope you had a good time off. So, it obviously seems to the average fan like a lot to of Nats injuries this year, and to key players. But could you please set the number of games lost to stars and back end bullpen types in a historical context for us? Have the Nats had historically bad injury luck this year? And how much do the the injuries explain their disappointing performance? Thanks much!

Well, I just happened to have that worked out, as of last Thursday. But I didn't use it in that column. You can "fix" the numbers, but they are dramatic as far as the N.L. east goes. Yes, other teams have had lots of injuries, though the Nats are neck-and-neck with anybody for a total value that was lost. However, those unlucky teams were NOT in the N.L. East.

This is "unused" from last week:

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So far, the Nats have gotten 668 games from their starting lineup (including Juan Soto) while the so-far indestructible (or lucky) Phils have had 934 while the Braves (including Ronald Acuna) have had 865. It’s tough to give away 197 and 266 man-games to rivals, especially when the Nats shredded bullpen, plus the long absence of Strasburg means the Nats pitching may’ve been the most beaten up, too.

 

As football season arrives, I find myself again in a dilemma. At age 65, I have enjoyed watching FB all my life. Now I feel guilty about watching, because it could (by increasing TV ratings) lead more boys and young men to risk their future by risking CTE. You are a fan too, and a thoughtful person whose opinion I highly respect. How do you deal with that dilemma? Can you advise me?

Watching football has always been one of my pleasures. I shared it with my father and then with my son. An awful lot of great hours. I played for seven years up through high school and had the luck of playing for one of the best coaches in the D.C. area, Sleepy Thompson, who had 29 winning seasons in 32 years. Which included plenty of teams in the Washington area's Top 20 and Top 10, and a senior class that had 50-to-55 boys. The year after I graduated, his team, with a lot of my former teammates, was No. 5 in the whole D.C. area. Coach Thompson was the exact opposite of these pathetic petty tyrants like D.J. Durkin that we're hearing about now. 

I don't think we ever played a team that was better conditioned than we were. We had a football camp in West Virginia where we ran up and down, what certainly seemed like a mountain to us in full uniform in mid-August. There was a lot of hitting, more than now with more info about CTE. But Sleepy was always constantly conscious of "water breaks" and taking enough time to cool down in the heat. You don't have to have heat stroke to get in great shape, those two things are COMPLETELY unrelated. And you don't have to make "manhood" comments to motivate players. 

Coach Thompson always said before the first practice that there was one thing for sure on this team: "ALL the hitters will play." Then no more was said. As for cursing, he had a face that said he had seen it all and said it all, but, because (then) St. Stephens School was an Episcopal School he approved of the idea that a coach should set an example. So he NEVER swore. Ever. Which, at times, seemed to make his head about to explode. His worst was "Cheeeese and crackers!!" Which, in his voice, was worse than if he'd started off with "Jeeesus Christ" and followed it up with curses. 

In college, I roomed one year with one of the best players on the team at Amherst which was coached by Jim Ostendarp. The Darp had played for the New York Giants for a couple of years, was a good friend of Tom Landry and, in 33 years, had a 168-91-5 record. His teams lost three games in my four years there. So I asked my roommate about The Darp. A whole lot like Sleepy. He didn't intimidate or abuse players verbally or demean them. He was concerned that, sicne some would become doctors or whatever, that they never missed a lab or whatever. Studies always came first. Doug Swift, who was a starting outside linebacker for several years on the Miami Dolphins No-Name Defense that went 17-0 was a casual friend back then, too, and he always loved the Darp, how sane he was, but what a pitch he brought the team to by kickoff.

So, my experience of football coaches, including many in local area high schools that I covered for six years in the '70's is that they are some of the best people in sports, and just some of the best people, period. Few are more influential in the lives of so many young men. Which is why it is SO important to jump all over guys who disgrace their profession, demean players. Sleepy turned down the West Virginia University head football coaching job. Maybe others, too. I wonder whether he wondered if you could do it the same way, the right way, at the major college level. We were friends for years after I "grew up," but I never asked him that one. 

So, football and I have a very long, very good relationship. (It would have been a lot better if I'd been a lot faster. Bigger would have helped, too.) 

It's sad, well, to me anyway, though it probably makes some folks glad, to see football in the CTE era. I don't think there is any reason to question the science. I'm sure my parents would never let me play now, even though my father was proud that he had played, in the same modest definition of the term "played" that applies to me, on a high school team that was WVa state champion.

The long-term future doesn't look good to me. I'm less interested now. Not a LOT less interested, but somewhat. It's a noticeable difference. I pay more attention to the big hits, the hits to the head. I grew up when it was still legal to hit helmet-to-helmet, clothesline tackle, block anywhere on the front of the opponent, chop block, horse collar. Basically, you could do anything except tackle by grabbing the face mask. Looking back, it doesn't seem as "romantic" as it did then! In one game, one of our D-backs was knocked out and the ambulance drove right onto the field to take him to the hospital. (I'll get an e-mail from him 'cause he sometimes reads the chats.) A straight-A student in my class was a safety and made up for average size/ability by being a hitter. After one game we walked off and he mentioned the final score, except it was the halftime score, he didn't remember the second half at all, even the touchdowns. If you could count how many fingers the asst coach was holding up, knew your name, maybe who you were playing, you could go back in the game.

IOW, a LOT of people, not serious athletes, just the millions of people like us who have a lifelong connection to the game, even though it is kind of a slight connection, feel this dilemma. We thought the big problem was the one-in-a-million chance that you got a broken neck. We didn't know that EVERY hit in every practice and game was a risk, right down to those ridiculous 6th-grade games on the 90-pound team, maybe ESPECIALLY those games at very young ages. 

I doubt that we are going to feel that this is LESS of a problem as each new football season arrives.

I never thought I'd see the dominant American sport in my lifetime have an absolutely fundamental identity and existential crisis, that nobody dreamed existed. Every hit to the head, even the thousands of little ones in all those hundreds of drills and scrimmages, has a cumulative impact.

Easy to understand, hard to digest.  

....

One mistake to correct, thanks Tramel, the Impossible Dream team was '67, not '68.  

If the Nats can get a decent return for Gio Gonzalez before the end of the month, shouldn't they jump at the chance? He cleared waivers, and so the Nats could pay down some of his salary in order to maximize the return.

There are no more "decent returns" at this point. Just salary dumps. And career minor-leaguers in return. The GMs have to act like they got something in return. The beat reporters are stuck with those quotes which sound so authoritative. These days, GOOD young players are gold. And you can't get 'em for ultra-discount prices like a month of Gio.  

Mike Rizzo has shown over the years that he is usually ahead of the curve with replacement players to "stars" who seem to be leaving. He traded for Eaton prior to Harpers free agency, he had Turner in place for the departing Desmond, he had Scherzer, Strasburg, and Gio when Zimmermann left. However, with Gio leaving and with Strasburg looking like a 25 game starter, who does Rizzo acquire to become that third quality starter? Roark is a great 4th starter, and is a free agent after next year. Fedde and Ross are solid 5th starter candidates, but I really see a #2/3 type starter badly needed for the Nats next year. Thoughts on what Rizzo may do? Thanks.

You've identified the problem. I'll see what I can find out or figure out. Thanks. Some of the best pitchers don't arrive full-blown. Max was 9-11, 4.12 his first full year in Arizona. He was supposed to be good, not great. If you're smart, hard-working, creative and coach-able sometimes there's a very unexpected jump in pitchers with good arms and good stuff, but who don't look over-powering at first, like Fedde, Jefry Rodriguez, and Joe Ross. The Nats have not had one of those Amazing Surprise pitchers who turn out to be All-Stars, not just 11-12, 4.20 ERA guys. Someday they probably will.

Roark was supposed to be a nobody his whole career. Now he may end up with a long, rubber-armed bulldog career like (175-win) Virgil Trucks who kept getting better through the '50's, won 20 at 36 and 19 at 37. Even Rizzo laughed at that. "Virgil Trucks? What?" Sometimes I get to say, "Look it up."

does it worry you as much as me the poor tackling in the skins secondary?

Too soon to worry about anything. But it was certainly weak in the 1st half with starters still in.

Boz, A few weeks back you predicted that the Braves would begin their summertime wilt sometime around the mid-August mark. Granted they've had an easy schedule the past couple weeks, and their schedule is about to get much harder, but they have continued to play well. Has this surprised you, and do you still expect them to fold their tents? How many wins to you see them getting?

They seem to be getting stronger. And Acuna is getting even better. August gives a lot of data. The Braves should be happy. The Phils? Much better. But still have my doubts.

Do the Nats play him every game so he qualifies for the batting categories at the end of the season? Poor kid could really use a game off here and there. Also, are umps biased against Juan Soto? I watch most of the games, and carefully watch every Soto at bat and notice that umps consistently give him strikes that are balls for players on either team. It is obviously enormously frustrating for him to deal with some really lousy calls and I'm not referring to borderline "paint" calls. Am I imagining things, is this "rookie treatment," will it change?

He needs some days off. I have no idea why Martinez is playing like the Nats are two games out and a 19-year-old has to play FAR more games than he ever has. Anybody ever hear of long-range planning? Juan complained too often early, got thrown out for it once and is probably getting some "rookie treatment." If Ted Williams could praise the umps for 20+ years when he KNEW he could call 'em better than they could, then Juan Soto can learn to hug 'em, too.

Do you want to be "right" (on that pitch) or do you want to "win" (have a good relationship with umps your whole career.)    

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Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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